The evolution of Arielle Collins came full circle this year.
The Hamilton Square product began her basketball career as a pure point guard playing CYO basketball for St. Gregory’s. When she got to Steinert, Collins became a scorer. Not just a scorer, but the school’s all-time top scorer.
She maintained that role as a postgraduate at the Hun School and, as recently as the 2011-12 season, was the leading scorer for Fordham University’s women’s basketball team with an 11.1 average.
But in her final collegiate campaign this year, Collins got back to being a classic point guard who looked to set up her teammates first and would only take the shot when it was there. She also added something to her arsenal: award-winning defense.
Collins always got a lot of steals at Steinert, but steals don’t always indicate strong defense as much as they do a player’s penchant for taking risks. This season, Collins became outstanding at ball denial and pressuring her opponent with her man-to-man defense. She also had a team-high 72 steals.
Her scoring average dipped to nine points per game, mostly because transfers Marah Strickland and Erin Rooney came in as quality scorers. But she made up for the two points per game she didn’t score this season with the points she didn’t give up on defense.
The 2008 Steinert grad was recognized for her efforts by making the Atlantic 10 Conference’s All-Defensive Team.
“That was definitely a surprise,” Collins said with a laugh. “Whenever I feel I’m lacking in one area, I try to pick it up in another. Our coaches have put an emphasis on defense. I knew if I was going to be an asset to the team, I would have to really step up on defense.”
When coach Stephanie Gaitley took over the program last year, it was defense that she preached. Gaitley, who won her 500th career game when Fordham beat Temple in the Atlantic 10 Tournament semifinals on March 9, inherited a program in shambles and immediately made it respectable by preaching ‘D’.
And when Collins found out she wasn’t expected to be a big scorer, she knew she needed to help in other ways, like pressuring the other team’s point guard.
“Our success started on defense. With my teammates denying their player, it made it easier for me to do what I needed to do and that’s pressure my girl all over the court,” Collins said. “Coach doesn’t demand me to do it. I just started doing and she liked it.”
Sometimes, Gaitley reins Collins in, but in general, the energetic pressing suits the new coach’s style.
“I want to pressure them 94 feet up and down the court. We definitely all want to work hard for 40 minutes,” Collins said. “That’s (Gaitley’s) motto—Focus for 40.”
That focus propelled Fordham to a 24-8 record as of March 18 and its first appearance in the Atlantic 10 Tournament finals. The Rams lost the March 16 final against St. Joseph’s, 47-46, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. But they did earn a spot in the WNIT, where the Rams were scheduled to play Army March 21. It is just the second postseason appearance for Fordham in school history.
Collins was a vital part of the incredible turn-around at Fordham this year. The 24 wins had the Rams within three of tying the program’s all-time record. As recently as 2007-08 Fordham was 0-29, which set an NCAA record for losses in a season. Fordham won A-10 quarterfinal and semifinal games for the first time this year after being picked to finish 11th in the pre-season.
The Rams were 20-41 in Collins’ first two seasons. They went 12-18 in Gaitley’s first year, but with numerous close losses.
“I realized there had been a dramatic change as soon as she came in,” Collins said. “I was so much more of a comfortable player with her. Everything was starting to click. We were losing games, but only by one point, and a lot of times by no more than five.”
The coach credited Collins for being key in the improvement.
“Ace has done an outstanding job of leading the team in huddles and on the court,” Gaitley said. “Her inspired play on both ends of the court has been a critical component to our turnaround.”
And while things were heading in the right direction, Collins didn’t foresee this kind of jump.
“I never really considered this year was going to be good until it actually started happening,” she said prior to the A-10 title game. “We just try to go out every game and stay focused and play hard. I never thought we’d be where we’re at. Just to see how hard everyone works has been amazing.
Should this year be the start of bigger and better things at Fordham, Collins should always be considered a key figure in the turnaround just by the way she selflessly accepted her “old” new role of playmaking point guard.
“It was definitely a hard adjustment,” said Collins, who was second on the team in assists. “My career was always about scoring and being relied on to score. Not having that pressure of scoring and getting a different role of becoming a true point guard was hard to get used to at first.”
She always had it in her, however. Even while setting scoring records at Steinert, Collins threw some no-look passes so good that teammates were sometimes shocked to get them.
“I didn’t think it was a bad thing,” she said of this year’s new responsibilities. “Because I was always such a scorer, people don’t realize I love to give the ball up. I definitely like my role as being a true point guard and having those other threats and not having the pressure of being the one to score.”
She can still score, however. Through the first 31 games she was second on the team with 45 three-pointers. In the A-10 semifinal game, with Temple focusing on Strickland, Collins stepped up to score 16 points.
“I’ll still take the shot, I’m always comfortable shooting a three-pointer,” Collins said. “But the whole thing really is funny. My mom knows how I am. She knows I like to pass. When I went to Steinert I couldn’t believe I was the scorer and scored that many points. But it was just because my teammates looked for me, so I became a scorer.
“No one ever knew I could be a playmaker because of my stats. It’s funny the way things work out. I came back to my roots this year. I found my way back to my true role. I’ve truly become what I’ve always wanted to be.”
And what she turned back into, helped turn Fordham into a legitimate basketball program once again.